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Unicorn Training’s bid to find talent at Bournemouth University
HE was chairman of AFC Bournemouth for four years – but Peter Phillips’ own business has a trophy cabinet a football club might envy.
Unicorn Training has been growing consistently for 25 years and is a leading player in its niche sector.
In 2013, it was named Outstanding Learning Organisation at the national e-Learning Awards for the second time – the latest in a succession of prizes.
And Mr Phillips says the one thing constraining its growth is the difficulty of finding talented writers to work on the training materials it produces.
The firm was set up in the spare bedroom of Mr Phillips’ brother Andy, with one computer – an Amstrad 1512. The third partner, George Cooper, is still with the company.
It started off providing face-to-face training to the financial services sector. But after winning a contract with the Chartered Insurance Institute, the firm began developing its first computer-based training (CBT) – on five-and-a-half inch floppy disks – in 1989.
“That did okay and that got us into developing computer-based training as a business stream.
“That grew quite quickly and became our main business,” said Mr Phillips, the company’s CEO.
Those disks gave way to the three-and-a-half-inch variety, then to CD-ROMs and to online training.
Today, the company has 80 staff, most of them in Bournemouth, but with a small office in London and satellite operations in Spain and India.
Its customers are big players in the financial services sector and professional bodies.
The increase in regulation in financial services has created more opportunities, as has health and safety legislation.
New regulations require independent financial advisers to undertake 35 hours of professional development a year – and Unicorn produces the learning materials that suit them.
“We’ve grown every year for 25 years.
“We’ve grown about 10 per cent on average year on year and 16 per cent in 2013,” said Mr Phillips.
“We’ve been largely constrained by lack of skilled resources.
“There are some specialists that are really quite difficult to get.”
The key people it needs are software developers and creative writers – hence its decision to sponsor Bournemouth University’s New Media Writing Prize.
“That ability to turn dull material into interesting learning by adding case studies, stories and action is a really rare skill,” said Mr Phillips.
Although they can be hard to find, the creatives who do join the company tend to stay.
“One of the things we try to do here is to make it a fun place for people to come to work,” said Mr Phillips.
He added: “One of the things that’s really important in business is recruiting really good, talented people and then letting them get on with it – giving them the freedom to use their talents.
“Get people who are better than you.”
From 2002-06, Peter Phillips took a sabbatical from Unicorn Training in order to be chairman of AFC Bournemouth.
“I was just a fan and I had set up a scheme called PlayerShare to help raise funds to buy some players. I came to the notice of the club and then they asked me to join the board,” he said.
It was not long before the chairman resigned and Mr Phillips was asked to step in.
“It was always from a position in the beginning of the supporter-owned club being completely skint,” he said.
“I was just always trying to raise enough money to keep us solvent. It was the fans, as owners, that always had to put their hands in their pockets and you can only keep doing that for so long.”
It was “always plain” that the future of the club depended on finding a benefactor, he said, and recently-departed chairman Eddie Mitchell found that person. He still enjoys matches as a season ticket holder and Unicorn Training sponsored last Saturday’s FA Cup tie against Liverpool.
“It was an incredibly stressful job,” he said of the chairmanship.
“I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody unless you’ve got really deep pockets and a very thick skin.”
But he added: “I think it probably makes you a calmer person because you realise you can find your way through most things.
“Things that seem very stressful at the time, you can find a way through and life goes on. I’m pleased I did it.”
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